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Japan’s Newest Favorite Sport

The numbers don’t lie. 

The 70,103 attendees who watched the South Africa-England Rugby World Cup Final live was the highest number of spectators that Japan had ever hosted for a sporting event. 

It was not just for the final either.  As the home team put up big wins, Japan as a whole picked up momentum and flocked across the country to any of the 12 stadiums designated to host the tournament’s matches.  For six weeks, Japanese and visiting fans from other nations helped record a staggering 99.3 percent attendance rate throughout the entire competition.

If you’re looking for proof that the Rugby World Cup was a success, the numbers don’t lie; but they also don’t tell the entire story.

A country that barely understood the difference between rugby and American Football was quickly making household names out of home-grown players and foreigners alike.  Competing countries from other continents soon found their second home as host cities showed their resident rivals the best of Japanese hospitality.  The tournament began right at the time most of the summer festivals had concluded and served to provide the country with a second wind of celebration.  It also carried on throughout several typhoons, most notably including the largest storm ever to hit the country in over 60 years.  But through tragedy emerged examples of selflessness and compassion that transcended the boundaries of the rugby pitch as some players from other countries did what they could to help the host nation.

It became a tournament of goodwill as much as it was of great play. 

But the games must go on. 

The stadiums were packed with a wide range of age demographics—all of whom soaked up the thrill and pageantry of the tournament down to the very last minute.  If you were Japanese and never followed the sport a day in your life, the RWC was the perfect foray into rugby fandom.

Japan began the tournament mounting decisive victories on top of impressive wins on top of unimaginable upsets.  Rival teams also charmed the local fans who after the Brave Blossoms’ early exit needed another reason to keep cheering. It became bigger than an obligatory support for the home team. When players from other countries prevailed, Japan felt their joy. When others fell short of their expectations, Japanese fans also experienced their disappointment. And when legends gave it their all on the field before exiting for the final time, Japan celebrated their accomplishments.

In a society extremely sensitive to fads, this did not feel like a minor case of rugby fever.  It was a byproduct of years of planning and execution.  The unprecedented success of the Japan team also galvanized and inspired a generation of hopeful practitioners.  For six weeks this island nation was captivated by the Rugby World Cup along with the highs and lows that it shared with hundreds of thousands of others during the two-month-long competition.  And for six weeks rugby was Japan’s favorite sport.

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